Don’t congratulate the butterfly ….

February 3, 2008

I have always been concerned about the trivialisation of serious issues by some popular authors (often journalists). The general approach is to pick up some partially understood theory, find a few hundred illustrative examples which can be used to fill out the chapters and then sit back while the money rolls in. To complete the process you then charge speaker fees of $80K to recite material that people have already read in your book. Now there are several examples, and the books are not all bad, they contain useful material, they create awareness, but the simplistic causality demanded by the genre does little service to serious work.

It’s always nice when someone takes them on, and thanks to Wayne for this article by Duncan Watts of Columbia University. He challenges Gladwell’s idea that you have to target influencers, connectors and mavens to get your ideas out. Watts has three fairly simple arguments:

  • You can’t create a crude category like influencers because different people and groups work in very different ways, I quote: whatever theory applies to Oprah Winfrey probably doesn’t apply to Anna Wintour, let alone the local hipsters. In blending them all together under one vague label, it becomes impossible to specify how influentials are supposed to make anything happen, and therefore to evaluate whether or not the claim is correct
  • His second reason will resonate with anyone with even the most basic understanding of complexity theory: Common sense notions of cause and effect are deeply misleading with respect to social processes
  • His third point is the most critical and applies to most of the popular books: Data gathered retrospectively is biased

This last point is at the heart of my objection to the popularisers; it is all too easy to find facts to fit theory when you use hindsight. It is also far too easy to draw causal chains backwards. In respect of influencers Watts makes the point well: The natural (and almost universally practiced) thing to do is to follow the story back in time until the “beginning” and see what led to what. As part of this process, we will almost certainly find (if we’re looking for it, anyway) that near this beginning, a few people were doing things (trying out the style, promoting the book, etc.) that subsequently became very widely copied. At this point, in part because of the sloppy thinking described in (1) and the common sense notion of cause and effect described in (2), the temptation to label these people influentials, and to assume they are somehow special, is almost overwhelming. For the same two reasons, it is very hard to disagree with.

It is rather like blaming the butterfly flapping its wing in the Amazonian Rain Forest for the Hurricane in Texas. If you could then killing the butterflies would stop the hurricanes, or creating the right robot butterfly could create a devastating weather based weapon of mass destruction. In a complex system small things lead to large effects, but it is multiple interacting small things, not a linear track to the butterfly.

Now its interesting that there seems to be a first/second book syndrome here. Tipping Point (despite the criticism above) is, overall not a bad book with some useful material while Blink is truly terrible in use of selective cases. We see the same thing with Taleb. Fooled by Randomness, was a timely book, well written and useful, but then we got Black Swan which again has good examples but over generalises its theory. Taleb in other writings is also overlaying a strong political ideology (I have blogged this before but can’t find it for the moment) arguing that US market capitalism is the best method to handle surprise. I wonder if that is true of Global Warming?

Mind you the title of Taleb’s latest put me off. The discovery that some swans were black is used an an illustrative example of identity in philosophy. All the swans you have seen are white, so you include the whiteness in the definition of a swan, then you find you are wrong. No one was particularly surprised, interested possibly, certainly it was neither high impact or unpredictable.

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